Medieval Beer

The first time the brewing of beer is mentioned as an independent specialized craft instead of a household chore in Europe is in the Capitulare de villis (composed in c. 771-800 AD) of Charlemagne during the Carolingian Empire. This was the era of large domains or estates, more or less self sufficient and independent, characterized by a rigid organizational structure. Each estate was regulated to employ a specified number of tradesmen, which included siceratores, brewers, who were charged with brewing beer, cervisia, and other alcoholic drinks.

That every censor in the service of your good workmen, that is, to produce … brewers, which is the beer, or cider, or perry, or else whatsoever beverage is suitable to drink for the lords, know how to make.

In this Capitulare de villis (811) Charlemagne made the right to brew (for more than one’s need) a royal prerogative. This limited the right to brewing for the surrounding territories to royal manors and imperial homesteads, changing brewing from a common law to a privilege linked to a place. The specialization of brewing as a craft helped develop brewing knowledge and techniques, including the scaling up in volume of individual brews. The spread of the Carolingian Empire went hand in hand with the spread of Christianity. One of the ways to insert Christianity into society is through the founding of monasteries, which then in turn were responsible for improvement of the quality of beer. In early medieval monasteries there was not a clear division between brewers and bakers, and monks changed tasks on a weekly basis. Not until the 9th-century Synod of Aken were monks assigned to either the brewery or the bakery for an entire year. Much of the value of a monastery depended on the grounds surrounding it. The farmsteads belonging to those grounds were obligated to deliver goods, including beer, as well as malt, and bread. In the southern Low Countries the monastic features camba and bratsina are already mentioned before the year 1000, which in later sources are translated as bachus (bakehouse) et bruhus (and brewhouse); small buildings available to rent by the villagers to aid in the production of brews and breads.

One of the improvements likely introduced by these early monasteries was the incorporation of hops to the brewing of beer. The earliest written proof of hops cultivation comes from the 8th-century and refers to hop gardens in the Hallertau region of Germany. The monastery Corvey, south of Hannover, exempted the millers in 822 from gathering hops and firewood. The text mentions these wild hops were intended for the use in brewing of beer. Half a century later, cultivation of hops is found in charters dated between 859 and 883 which mention the humularia or hopgardens in Bavaria in southern Germany. In this context, the Graveney find of a one or more bales of hops on a boat that had sunk in the 10th century near Graveney, Kent, is often cited as yet another indication that hops was used for brewing. Note, though, that hops as a plant was already in use for food and fiber: spring growth would be eaten like asparagus and the plant is of the same family as nettle. With a complete absence of a hopped brewing tradition in England, one wonders if these bales were indeed intended for brewing.

By the 12th and 13th century the development of cities in northwestern Europe created a market for the sales of foodstuffs, including beer. The cities’ tradesmen were dependent on bakers, brewers, and other producers of foodstuffs. Due to the development of cities, beer brewing became a specialized trade outside of monasteries. As a result the production increased, and the quality of beer had to improve to keep up with commercial demands.

By the 13th century hops became the primary additive in the brewing process in northern Germany. In large part due to its durability, hopped beer quickly became successful and the technique quickly spread to the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. At this time beer brewing was mostly a domestic and monastic occupation that occurred on a small scale. A good reason for small-scale brewing was that early beer did not keep well and needed to be consumed within a few days to a few weeks, also limiting transportation and thus commerce. By the 12th century, northern Germany had special hop gardens and hops were adopted for the use in brewing. Hopped beer brewed correctly keeps much longer than the unhopped beers brewed before, making it possible for the production of beer to become a professional occupation and the scale of brewing to increase from the 13th century onwards. Of course, the success of hopped beer did not happen overnight and was sometimes met with resistance. Saint Hildegard von Bingen was of the opinion that hops dried up the body and increased melancholy, but also praised its property of preserving liquors from corruption.

The use of hops in brewing must have been a gradual process of trial and error, as incorrect proportions and wrong boiling times would destroy the useful properties of the hops. In the right amounts with the correct method of preparation, however, hopped beer surpassed gruit beer in several aspects. Economically, as gruit beer had to have a high alcohol content to preserve it for a reasonable amount of time it therefore needed a larger amount of expensive malted grain, or concentrated malt, to boost the amount of fermentable sugars. Throughout the middle Ages, grain shortages were common in the Low Countries and the scarcity of grain had to be overcome by increasing imports. As hops is a natural preservative, the alcohol and thus grain content could be lower, making hopped beer more cost-effective to brew. As hop farmer Reginald Scot claimed in his A Perfite Platform of a Hoppe Garden (1576): “And in the favor of the Hoppe thus much more I say that whereas you cannot make above eyght or nyne gallons of indifferent Ale, out of one bushell of Mault, you may draw XVIII or XX gallons of very good Beere” Bitter hopped beer would have been a novelty in the heavy and rather sweet gruit beer market. But most important would have been durability. Hopped beer became one of the few foodstuffs of the middle Ages that could be stored for months. As beer supplied a large part of the caloric demand, with an average consumption of around 1-3 liters per person per day this would be advantageous. But the most important aspect, which would change the world of brewing forever, was that the durability of hopped beer allowed it to be transported, and therefore traded.

Hopped beer was an excellent trading product and consequently became one of the major sources of income for the northern European towns. For instance in 1376, 43% of the craftsmen in Hamburg were brewers. In 1407 Lübeck housed 174 breweries and most of the production was designated for export. Most of the Hamburg export went to the Low Countries, especially Amsterdam. The export from northern Germany brought the innovation with it, which while quickly embraced by the common folks did not always go over so well with the local governments, especially in the Low Countries. Here beer was taxed through production by the monopoly on gruit (a grain and herb mixture thought to aid in fermentation) and this tax provided a good income for the authorities. At first, to protect their interest, both imported hopped beer and hops were banned. When that proved difficult, taxes were put on imported beer.

The northern parts of the Netherlands, North and South Holland, quickly grasped the economic benefits of producing Hamburg beer locally, kick-starting Dutch brewing commerce and a lively tradition of plagiarized beer types. Gruit ale quickly became supplanted by hopped beer, even though gruit ale continued to be produced until the beginning of the 15th century, especially in the southern Low Countries. It took a few more centuries for the English to come around, where the introduction of hops came later and met with vehement resistance. Hopped beer was introduced to England from the Low Countries and the preference for domestic drink at times had a nationalistic tinge. According to one author, hopped beer made men fat, as is evident from the fat faces and bellies of the Dutch. This point of view changed swiftly and within a century after the fat belly propaganda, their own ale was seen as an unmanly drink, fit only for women and the sick.


Recommended reading:


  • Ackersdyck, W.C. Verhandelingen over zekere belasting op het brouwen van bier, onder de benaming van Het Regt van de Gruit. Haak, 1819.
  • Alberts, Leen. Brouwen aan de Eem. Amersfoort, een Stichtse bierstad in de late middeleeuwen. Hilversum: Verloren, 2016.
  • Hallema, A., J.A. Emmens. Het bier en zijn brouwers. De geschiedenis van onze oudste volksdrank. Amsterdam: J.H de Bussy, 1968.
  • Vilsteren, V.T. van. In den beginne… De oorsprong en techniek van het brouwen tot de 14de eeuw. Kistemaker, R.E. & van Vilsteren, V.T. (editors). Bier! Geschiedenis van een volksdrank. Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1994.
  • Vilsteren, V.T. van. From Herbs to Hops: Outlines of the Brewing Process in Medieval Europe. Vol. LXIX, No. 3. New York City: De Halve Maen, 1996.
  • Wubs-Mrozewicz, Justyna. Hopped Beer as an Innovation. The Bergen Beer Market around 1200-1600 in the European context. Trade, Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange: Continuity and change in the North Sea area and the Baltic c. 1350-1750. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2005. (p.152-168)